A Palm Sunday Message

17 April 2011

Palm Sunday


An unsigned illustration from Bible Primer: New Testament, by Adolf Hult, Rock Island, Illinois, 1920; this is a book that belonged to my maternal grandmother.

Palm Sunday is upon us again. There is a traditional Swedish holiday song that tells us that Christmas joy will last ’til Easter, and Easter joy will last ’til Christmas. For the ecclesiastical calendar, Christmas and Easter have been the devotional centers around which the liturgical year revolves. Each holiday has its attendant holiday season — Advent and Yuletide for Christmas and Passiontide and Holy Week for Easter — which is itself broken into an expectant before and a fulfillment that follows.

There is an admirable symmetry to these holiday seasons, with expectation and fulfillment of life followed by the expectation and fulfillment of death (and rebirth). One would have difficulty formulating a more profound account and celebration of human life if one tried to do so consciously and explicitly. Instead, this emerged from Western history unconsciously and implicitly, and eventually came to dominate the year in Christendom.

Last year in The Devotional Meaning of Palm Sunday I suggested that Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was an “upping of the ante” and represented the apotheosis of what some historians now call “The Jesus Movement” while Christ was still the living figurehead of his movement. The pace of the narrative of Christ’s ministry picks up with Palm Sunday and culminates on Good Friday with Christ’s trial and crucifixion.

Thus the liturgical calendar, not only schematically but also in terms of narrative, is quite perfectly adapted to the human need for chronology by which to celebrate. Year before last, in A Meditation on the Occasion of Palm Sunday, I suggested that we can…

“push our a priori imagination to the limits of its possibility in attempting to understand points of view distinct from that egocentric point of view native and natural to each one of us. To this end, thinking through history from both directions, thinking of the present in terms of the past and the past in terms of the present, is one place to start.”

This means not only extrapolating our intellectual innovations backward through history and re-interpreting the past in terms of present knowledge, but also the extrapolation of past traditions into the future and interpreting our epistemic and technological innovations, and all the unexpected unknown unknowns of history in terms of our past.

The maturation of agricultural civilization in an Axial Age that provided to us a robust structure for human life is an achievement for which we should have proper reverence, and something from which we can learn in perpetuity, even if the axialization of industrial civilization eventually produces a tradition that supersedes and supplants that of agricultural civilization.

In order to do this, in order to draw fully upon the past, we need to understand the past, and most of all we need to formulate a comprehensive theoretical understanding of past traditions. I made a first essay in this direction last year in my Theses on Easter, which I hope at some point to revise, expand, and extend. For the moment, however, I merely remind myself of the need to follow up on this.

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